Teaching with Freire

William A. Booth

This is part of a special collection celebrating the centenary of Paulo Freire’s birth.

Over the last couple of years I have taught a module on culture and revolutions in Latin America at UCL. One week of the course, about halfway through, tackles Freire and the broader conceit of liberation through education. We look at sections of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, then consider how governments and educators in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua attempted to use education to transform society. Many students choose to write their assessed essays on this topic, and I’m always impressed by their ability to pick out the fundamentals of Freirean thought and measure them against revolutionary efforts which pre-dated them considerably (in Mexico), were coeval (in Cuba), or were more obviously influenced by Freire himself (in Nicaragua).

In my experience, many students react very positively to Freire. Not only do they see the immediate relevance for our studies of revolution in the region, but they are also keen to apply Freirean models to their own university (and indeed school) experiences. For students today in London the specifics of Latin American revolutionary education policy can seem rather fuliginous, but the energy and humanity in Freire’s writings really bring them to life. Understanding the explosive nature of Latin America’s twentieth century is rendered vividly clear in Freire’s assertion in Pedagogy of the Oppressed that “for the oppressors… to be is to have”.

When it comes to the relative merits and dangers of the ‘banking model’ and ‘problem-posing education’, students understand the distinction almost intuitively. The former is summarised thus by Freire: 

  • the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
  • the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
  • the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
  • the teacher talks and the students listen — meekly;
  • the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
  • the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
  • the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
  • the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
  • the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
  • the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.

Some of these dichotomies are inevitably baked into the neoliberal university; others may be challenged to a degree.

‘Problem-posing education’ is, by contrast, attractive to both educators and students, working in fact to break down the barrier between such roles. What greater ambition could I have as a university lecturer than to help “people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” and “to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, a transformation”. My students are not Freire’s peasants and cottagers, but nor are most of them hugely privileged or secure; with the hollowing-out of the middle-class and precaritisation characteristic of late capitalism, a critical appreciation of one’s existence and place in structures is not a philosophical luxury – it is a necessity.

I asked a few students who took the module if I could share their thoughts on this. Louie, a finalist, said: “Freire’s vision that education should allow people to develop a critical perspective of their own reality, instead of being a mere transfer of information, captivated me and made me think about my own educational experience”. There is something unsettling but tremendously freeing in this reconceptualization of classroom interactions – in Louie’s words, “by actively encouraging marginalised peoples to become ‘beings for themselves,’ through a process of cultural synthesis, Freire shows that education can be a vehicle for true liberation”.

Another finalist, Lisa, said that encountering Freire led her to begin “thinking about education as a tool of the revolution for the first time”. Lisa appreciated his idea that “the learner is a co-creator of knowledge [which] makes one re-think traditional education systems where ‘education’ can be seen as akin to ‘indoctrination’. Overall, studying Freire sparked my interest within education systems, and I will hopefully go on to do further modules on the topic.” Indeed, like several students, Lisa found Freire a very useful way into thinking not only about the importance of education to resource-strapped states attempting to enact societal change, but also about the function, potential, and limitations of education more broadly.

Jess, a second-year, had some familiarity with Freire’s ideas already; “I’ve always agreed with his stance on education and his rejection of the banking model.  However, I remember being really intrigued by the few pages we were assigned on ‘cultural synthesis’ and the impact of culture on social structures.” Jess focused on Freire’s idea that an ‘authentic revolution is a cultural revolution.’ She said: “I found this concept of authenticity really interesting with respect to Mexico when one considers how strong the government’s cultural programs were but their policy priorities changed a great deal.” Here was something both useful and interesting to the students – the way in which regimes seemed (rhetorically at least) to embrace Freire’s ideals, while being unwilling (or unable) to pass up the opportunity to enact propaganda and discipline through education.

A final, powerful appreciation of Pedagogy of the Oppressed came from Urja, another finalist. “I thought that Freire’s ideas were some of the most important and relevant that I studied at university. As we increasingly criticise the UK’s education system for its role in maintaining outdated structures of power and privilege, it’s so important to recognise the global nature of this pattern. Freire discussing the concept of education as freedom made me see my entire educational experience in a completely different light. Although he was writing in 1960s Brazil, a lot of his criticisms can also be applied to this country: students as empty receptacles, prescribed ideology, and so on. I don’t think I was treated as a ‘co-investigator’, as he put it, until university, and that too, only in a History degree – I don’t think my friends studying STEM degrees have been so fortunate. I wish it was mandatory for every politician and teacher to read Freire, although maybe that’s something he would argue against, even if it was his own book…” For Urja, then, Freire’s ideas are timely and highly relevant. They are liberating in a personal sense, but also valuable critiques of the collective role and utility of education systems.

I too have benefitted immensely from reading Freire’s work. I have worked multiple fixed-term jobs since completing my doctorate, and each has involved teaching events, processes, regions and ideas far beyond what I had studied to that point. It would be very easy to despair over the impossibility of doing complete justice to these unfamiliar topics, but Freire’s convincing demonstration of the value of mutual learning has allowed me to focus less on my own knowledge and more on the interaction among all in the seminar (whether in the classroom or online). I learn a great deal from my students, and, as Freire says, that’s a very good thing!

Freire’s heterodoxy is very useful for a historian. He himself spoke about his views on Marxism and Christianity, and how (like many other notable Latin American leftists) he came to reconcile the two: “I stayed with Marx in the worldliness, looking for Christ in the transcendentality”. More broadly, for an educator, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is full of visceral wisdom, of aides-memoires, and necessary demystifications. We might convince ourselves that as university lecturers we can do some work in or around the first stage of the pedagogy, that of transformation, but ultimately we are far removed from “a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation”. Those of us with notions of becoming “members of the oppressor class [who] join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation” are indirectly admonished because they “almost always bring with them the marks of their origin; their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people’s ability to think, to want, and to know”. Most importantly, and more encouragingly, Freire pushes “those who authentically commit themselves to the people [to] re-examine themselves constantly”. Amen to that.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

William Booth is a Lecturer in Latin American History at UCL Institute of the Americas. He works on socialisms and communisms in twentieth-century Latin America, though his thoughts are often elsewhere.

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